Freddy and Fredericka
by Mark Helprin
Published by Penguin
553 pages, 2005
Defying the Bikini Principle
Reviewed by H. V. Cordry
The books we choose for summer reading tend toward the light side -- mostly recreational things having low specific gravity, negligible weight and no more bulk than a cheese sandwich. Publishers' advertising portrays us lying on beaches reading paperbacks that we easily cradle in one hand, while we sip a watermelon agua fresca that matches our skimpy two-piece bathing suit. (In the summertime, you see, advertisers visualize the reading public as sexy, scantily clad women.)
While it's true that less is sometimes more, the bikini principle doesn't apply to Mark Helprin's books, nor would his readers wish for less. Freddy and Fredericka is an ambitious book of Homeric proportions and design in which Helprin exploits to the full his powers of invention while displaying a lesser known talent for comedy; for unlike classic epics, such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Freddy and Fredericka is a comic epic. The English novelist Henry Fielding defined this genre in the 1742 preface of his novel Joseph Andrews. Some scholars believe that Homer himself composed a comic epic called the Margites, of which no more than a few fragments survived him.
A comic epic differs from the classical epic only in its use of comedy, otherwise addressing important and serious subjects, with the action centering on a courageous hero -- or superhero -- like Odysseus or Achilles or Aeneas. In this case, it's Freddy, the Prince of Wales.
Helprin also weaves in a moving love story-that-might-have-been, for the title characters are obviously based on Prince Charles and Princess Diana; it was Diana's death in 1997 that ended their troubled marriage.
At the center of the tale, as in classical epics, is a quest. Here the quest is necessitated by unscrupulous newspaper publishers who embark on a campaign of defamation targeting Freddy, which seems likely to disrupt his accession to the throne after his mother's death. In crises such as this one the Royal Family has traditionally relied on the counsel of a mysterious figure known only as "Mr. Neil" (an anagram for "Merlin") who appears as if by magic and provides whatever help is needed. In this situation, Mr. Neil says, it is necessary to dispatch Freddy and Fredericka to reclaim Britain's lost colonies in North America.
So off they go, parachuting at night through dark clouds of noisome smoke and sulfurous fumes into a forbidding industrial wasteland in New Jersey, splashing down and nearly drowning in a drainage pool of chemical run off, an unpromising beginning for the two warriors, to whose list of disadvantages it might be added that they have no clothes and no identification. But they do have a cover story and it's not so different from that of the Coneheads, popular recurring characters in the early days of Saturday Night Live. The Coneheads explained their unusual appearance with a bland "We're from France." Freddy and his spouse tell suspicious Americans: "We're dentists."
Their ensuing adventures "on the road" form a thread of continuity through a wild proliferation of subplots and digressions as they proceed disjointedly toward their distant goal, which seems always more distant.
Partly a hymn praising the natural beauty and grandeur of parts of the United States -- largely the West and Midwest --Frederick and Fredericka also satirizes politicians, the news media and a variety of other deserving targets. While Helprin extols the fundamental vitality of America and the enduring values underlying its greatness, he decries the perversion of its values by unscrupulous and self-serving seekers of wealth and power. That he employs humor as a means to his ends in no way diminishes or vitiates the substance or authority of his judgments concerning the ways in which Americans have been misled and betrayed.
Yet for all that, it was in America that Freddy discovered that every man was a king. And it was there, too, where Freddy himself learned how to be a king -- another part of Mr. Neil's plan.
Freddy and Fredericka is an achievement of considerable magnitude, a book that in its blueprint stage would have sent most writers scurrying off to hide behind the sofa. Helprin's credentials, in the form of his earlier books, suggest that he alone could have taken it on feeling confident of success. | August 2005
H. V. Cordry is a former professor and veteran journalist, now retired.